Color lines, clotheslines, and bylines - my mother's and mine

I'm hardly the first in my family to take pen in hand. While we were growing up, my mother retired to the library every day after lunch to spend an hour with her black-and-silver Underwood, transcribing pages of longhand that in due course showed up as articles or books. Dad, an ordained minister who earned our keep as a printer, weighed in occasionally in religious periodicals. And, after most of us children were on our own, my parents collaborated on a weekly newspaper they founded, wrote, printed, and distributed.

So when I became a reporter and magazine writer, I wasn't plowing new ground. Yet, in the occasional creative-writing class I taught, I intoned the usual pieties about the importance of a writer finding his or her own voice. I never doubted I was sole possessor of mine.

Oh, I was aware of influences. When a reader detected a "sermon tone" in a column, I knew where that came from. Whole generations of Dad's family were ministers -my parents had met in seminary. But aside from her reporting, I hadn't made much connection between my mother's writing and mine. Hers tapped wellsprings foreign to my experience. Parenting articles, children's books, and religious curricula were out of my bailiwick.

My comeuppance began when I called to tell Mum about an essay I'd placed. She surprised me by saying she'd sold pieces to the same publication while I was growing up.

"Send me some," I said, and she did. An image of the old Underwood materialized when I unfolded the first of them - a typescript, single spaced with almost no margins. A second, a copy of a published piece, was dated 1963, the year I left for college.

While I didn't remember the essays, I recalled their starting points: an auction I'd held to palm off old magazines and empty ballpoint pens on my younger brothers; the hunk of ski wax she'd overlooked in somebody's pocket while sorting the dirty clothes.

That essay, "It All Comes Out in the Wash," started with the wax that coated the inside of the dryer, imparting an unattractive off-shade to several loads. Then it reviewed the way other overlooked items - money, PTA notices, nails - fared as laundry stowaways. (Dollar bills and loose change cleaned up nicely; laundering removed all traces of purple mimeograph fink rom wadded-up school notices.)

These new artifacts from my mother's writing past were a surprise. I knew her writing voice, and this wasn't it. This was mine. Here she was, reveling in the kind of wordplay I love to practice - and thought I'd invented. I felt co-opted. Plagiarized. Chagrined.

"The only line I draw is a color line," my mother wrote, describing the laundry she divided into "separate but equal piles" before their "daily liquidation."

Pretty good, though not accurate. She'd been carried away by her metaphor. What I recalled about her laundry piles was that, like segregated schools, they were more often separate and unequal.

To even things up, she invariably bridged the color line, tossing a couple of hankies and a few pairs of underwear and white socks into the dark-clothes load. Back when "colorfast" was the exception rather than the rule, our family "whites" gradually (sometimes catastrophically) transmogrified -not toward the "dinge" denigrated by TV ads, but in the direction of rose and mauve. The reds and blues were most guilty of not staying in their place, as our wardrobes demonstrated.

Mum tried to spare my socially liberal but sartorially conservative father from her equalizing tendencies, segregating most of his light clothes -more or less zealously - from the darks. He refused to wear pink shirts or purple socks, even around the house. It's a stand he still takes in an age when intentionally rosy men's shirts are a commonplace.

Soon after Mum sat down to air our family's dirty linen in print, my father and brother packed their bags for Washington to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and tens of thousands of others seeking to abolish a more important color line than the one in our laundry room. As they linked arms and headed toward the Lincoln Memorial to hear King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dad and Graham's hearts were no doubt pure (their shirts may even have been white), but they were probably wearing pink undershorts.

I'm coming to terms with the idea that I've inherited more than set of mouth or eye color from my mother. We share a love of words and the way they work together; a joy in kneading sentences until they're elastic; and a tendency, occasionally, for a good story's sake, to amend the literal truth.

What I didn't inherit was any inclination to sort the wash. My laundry piles are - and always have been - totally integrated. Fortunately, less comes out in the wash than it once did. It's in language rather than laundry that my colors bleed and blend.

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